Review of Putney, by Sofka Zinovieff


Crucial scenes in Putney are set not in London, but in Greece, especially the sexual consummation of the ill-starred relationship between the thirty-something Ralph Boyd and the thirteen-year-old Daphne Greenslay and their final encounter aboard a ferry boat whose name appropriately translates as Holy Nectar. This story is very much a Greek tragedy. Ralph re-enacts the pattern Aeschylus described: hubris attracts Nemesis, and though vengeance is slow – taking thirty-seven years – her aim is sure. We even have a Fury in the person of Daphne’s girlhood BF, who urges her to prosecute Ralph for this ancient crime. Daphne herself, now a recovering drug addict working as a travel agent specialising in Greek holidays, had seemed unaware of any psychologically damaging after effects of this crime till she noticed how her own thirteen-year-old daughter was developing her sexuality.

Britain is practically unique amongst civilized nations in having no statute of limitations for sex crimes. In most American states it varies between ten and twenty-one years (though not in Maryland, as many of us have become very aware recently). Even so, with a long history of drug abuse, Daphne would not be the most convincing witness against Ralph, now a distinguished composer, though diagnosed with cancer.

Daphne’s parents, Edmund and Ellie (for Eleftheria – why can’t modern Greeks pronounce an upsilon?), a writer and an activist lawyer, certainly put the SOUCE in insouciance; neither of them seemed to pay any attention to what must have been obviously a most unhealthy interest in their daughter on Ralph’s part. Which raises a problematic issue with this story. While the relationship between Ralph and Daphne is criminal and totally sick, for the story to generate pathos it also has to have a kind of terrible beauty. I had feared Putney might read like Lolita, but for me it didn’t. Ralph isn’t a usual paedophile – unlike Humbert Humbert he is not fixated on nymphettes. All of his other sexual relationships seem to be either with adult women or teenaged boys. I find him a full-blown victim of Aphrodite at her most careless. There may be undertones of the story of Daphne and Apollo as well, as Ralph is a musician and his first encounter with Daphne occurs in a treehouse. It’s not Daphne’s age that attracts Ralph, it’s her soul. Though he is totally selfish – especially in his treatment of his wife Nina – and utterly sleazy, he seemed to me perfectly to exemplify the contemporary expression ‘eyes wide shut’. Because the liaison began in the mid ’70s, when the antinomianism of the later ’60s was still prevalent, it is easy to imagine a bohemian like Ralph imagining he could get away with anything. Not even imagining; starkly insensible that there was anything wrong even though he has to go to a lot of trouble to disguise the relationship.

There is a school of criticism that holds Sophocles’ Oedipus actually knew his mother’s identity even before the events of the play. I do not believe that. But I am very taken with the parallels between the story of Oedipus and Putney, especially the denouement in Greece, that in several respects (including a visit to Thebes) is reminiscent of Oedipus at Colonus. In both cases we have an old man pursued by guilt for an unnatural relationship. Different readers will surely have quite varying responses to the fate of Ralph. Some will feel he gets off too lightly; others that the ending is appropriate and we can close the book with the sense that justice was done and perhaps the name of the boat wasn’t entirely ironic.

Because I love classical tragedy and the early potions of the book took place in London at the time in my life I felt most at home there (including the famous hot summer of ’76, the setting of so many marvelouslly moving stories including My Summer of Love and The Ladybird), I was reluctant to put this book down. If you’re not too repulsed by theme, you should find this a gripping read that will leave you with lots to consider.

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